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Martin LaMonica

Staff Writer, CNET

Open-source software, increasingly popular with budget-conscious companies, is beginning to expand into a new area: The lucrative infrastructure-software market dominated by industry giants such as Microsoft.

Individual open-source database and other applications are already popular. Now two open-source projects have launched efforts to assemble “stacks” of software applications that offer an open-source equivalent to commercial software from Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, BEA Systems and others.

Last week, a company called Gluecode began selling technical support and maintenance services for a package of infrastructure tools from the Apache Foundation, which oversees and develops some of the most popular open-source software. The package includes portal and database software, and an application server.

Then ObjectWeb, a French nonprofit consortium of companies and research bodies launched six years ago, said it will release the eXo Platform. The package includes a corporate Web portal and a content management application, in addition to the connectivity, grid computing and enterprise messaging software the consortium already offers.

Though it’s too soon to tell just how much these new stacks will shake up the multibillion-dollar market for back-end software, it’s clear there’s a growing number of open-source alternatives to commercial software makers’ most profitable products.

There’s more to come: The Apache Foundation and ObjectWeb are constructing a growing number of Java server software components to rival proprietary applications.

The good news, according to Anne Thomas Manes, an analyst with the Burton Group, is that for almost every major software need, from databases to business applications, there’s now an open-source alternative. The bad news? Get ready to do some work yourself.

“You can reconstruct the same thing based on open-source technology, but the challenge is that you have to integrate it yourself. A fair amount of systems integration is necessary to come up with an integrated environment,” Manes said.

The benefits of open source include cost savings–buyers typically pay only for support, not for the software itself. There’s also little of the haggling over long-term licenses and upgrade rights that comes with commercial software from Microsoft and other companies. Additional applications are easy to plug in as companies grow. And, if needed, the source code is readily available.

All sides agree that commercial server software suites will continue to have the most advanced features, at least for the foreseeable future. But the software programmers and entrepreneurs behind these open-source middleware projects intend to compete head-to-head with established providers.

“The new addition of a portal to the ObjectWeb code base provides the missing pieces to get a full stack that becomes a true alternative to proprietary products,” said Christophe Ney, executive director of ObjectWeb. “Members were really interested in having more than just an application server.”

Ney added that ObjectWeb is developing products usually associated with big-ticket software, such as integration and business process automation software based on the Business Process Execution Language, or BPEL, specification.

No large commercial entity has yet voiced plans to offer support services for an assemblage of ObjectWeb’s server components. However, Red Hat started offering services around its Jonas application server earlier this year.

The stack sell
IBM, BEA Systems and Oracle sell commercial versions of Java server software suites, which include a Java application server, a Web portal, integration software and application-development tools. Microsoft offers a similar set of Windows server software built on its .Net development model. This infrastructure software and related tools, which can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to license, form the technical underpinnings for business applications.

Big, commercial technology makers have in recent years recognized a growing demand for open-source alternatives. IBM is already a major contributor to open-source projects, such as Linux, grid computing, and a specialized Java database project called Derby. However, its middleware products, including its WebSphere Java server suite and DB2 database businesses–which generate billions of dollars in revenue–remain proprietary.

BEA has made some of its products open-source in an effort to curry favor with developers. But it relies on its proprietary software to drive revenue.

“The value is moving away from the software itself and going instead to the integration of components,” said Martin Fink, vice president for Linux at Hewlett-Packard. The company recently expanded its consulting services for JBoss, MySQL and Linux software running on HP hardware.

The open-source components from ObjectWeb, Apache and commercial company JBoss generally already have a following of software programmers. Adoption within businesses, however, hinges largely on whether there is adequate commercial support behind the products, according to industry analysts and executives.

That’s where companies like Gluecode, and start-ups like SpikeSource and SourceLabs, come in. Those companies have founded their business on the notion of selling subscription support services around a certified and integrated package of open-source software.

Gluecode provides support and maintenance services for a bundle of open-source products, which are available under the Apache open-source license. With a suite called Joe, the company sells services for the Geronimo Java application server, Pluto portal software, Derby database, and Agila workflow software.